Recent years have seen a growing interest among psychologists for debates in moral philosophy. Moral psychologists have investigated the causal origins of the opposition between utilitarian and deontological judgments and the psychological underpinnings of people’s beliefs about the moral status of animals. One issue that remains underexplored in this research area is the relationship between people’s disposition to engage in utilitarian thinking and their attitudes towards animals. This gap is unfortunate considering the tight philosophical connection between utilitarianism and the claim that animals have the same moral status as humans. Indeed, the principle of utility leads naturally enough to the view that animals count every bit as much as human beings. In this paper, we report two empirical studies dedicated to bridging this gap. In Study 1, we looked at the relationship between attitudes towards animals and utilitarian judgments in the context of sacrificial dilemmas. In Study 2, we bypassed the problems raised by the use of such dilemmas as a measure of utilitarianism by relying on other types of thought experiments. Overall, our results suggest no strong correlation between utilitarianism and attitudes towards animals. Rather, the existence of a correlation between utilitarianism and attitudes towards animals very much depends on how both are measured.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Several studies investigated people’s intuitions about sacrificial dilemmas involving animals (Petrinovich et al. 1993; O’Neill and Petrinovich 1998; Caviola et al. 2021, 2022), but they did not investigate the relationship between attitudes towards animals and the utilitarian weighing of human lives.
The original study is described in Gouiran MD, Cova F, Moral leniency as a possible mediator for the link between reflective cognitive style and utilitarian moral judgment (unpublished manuscript).
Gouiran MD, Cova F, Moral leniency as a possible mediator for the link between reflective cognitive style and utilitarian moral judgment.
This is quite a high average, suggesting that the “moral suboptimality” of certain decisions in the congruent dilemmas described in this measure might not be as obvious as intended.
This analysis was not pre-registered and was added during the analysis.
Jaquet F, Cova F, Beyond moral dilemmas: Investigating utilitarian moral judgment on five separate moral issues (unpublished manuscript).
Jaquet, F. & Cova, F. (2022). Beyond moral dilemmas: Broadening the Psychology of Utilitarian Moral Judgment. Unpublished manuscript, University of Geneva.
The original study is described in Jaquet F, Cova F, Beyond moral dilemmas.
Jaquet F, Cova F, Beyond moral dilemmas.
Baron J, Scott S, Fincher K, Metz SE (2015) Why does the Cognitive Reflection Test (sometimes) predict utilitarian moral judgment (and other things)? J Appl Res Memory Cognition 4(3):265–284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2014.09.003
Bartels DM, Pizarro DA (2011) The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas. Cognition 121(1):154–161. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2011.05.010
Bègue L, Laine PJ (2017) Moral utilitarianism and attitudes toward animals. Ethics & Behavior 27(3):173–178. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508422.2016.1162720
Bentham J (1789) An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Methuen, London
Byrd N (2022) Great minds do not think alike: Philosophers’ views predicted by reflection, education, personality, and other demographic differences. Rev Philos Psychol. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-022-00628-y
Byrd N, Conway P (2019) Not all who ponder count costs: Arithmetic reflection predicts utilitarian tendencies, but logical reflection predicts both deontological and utilitarian tendencies. Cognition 192:103995. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2019.06.007
Caviola L, Everett JA, Faber NS (2019) The moral standing of animals: Towards a psychology of speciesism. J Personal Soc Psychol 116(6):10–1029. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000182
Caviola L, Kahane G, Everett JA, Teperman E, Savulescu J, Faber NS (2021) Utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people? Harming animals and humans for the greater good. J Exp Psychol Gen 150(5):1008–1039. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000988
Caviola L, Schubert S, Kahane G, Faber NS (2022) Humans first: Why people value animals less than humans. Cognition 225:1–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105139
Conway P, Gawronski B (2013) Deontological and utilitarian inclinations in moral decision making: A process dissociation approach. J Personal Soc Psychol 104(2):216–235. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031021
Cova F, Boudesseul J, Lantian A (2019) “Sounds fine, but no thanks!”: On distinguishing judgments about action and acceptability in attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. AJOB Neurosci 10(1):57–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/21507740.2019.1595777
Cushman F, Young L, Hauser M (2006) The role of conscious reasoning and intuition in moral judgment: Testing three principles of harm. Psychol Sci 17(12):1082–1089. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01834.x
Davis MH (1983) Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. J Personal Soc Psychol 44(1):113–126. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
De Neys W, Franssens S (2009) Belief inhibition during thinking: Not always winning but at least taking part. Cognition 113(1):45–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2009.07.009
Dhont K, Hodson G, Leite AC (2016) Common ideological roots of speciesism and generalized ethnic prejudice: The social dominance human–animal relations model (SD–HARM). Eur J Pers 30(6):507–522. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2069
Everett JA, Kahane G (2020) Switching tracks? Towards a multidimensional model of utilitarian psychology. Trends Cogn Sci 24(2):124–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2019.11.012
Finucane ML, Gullion CM (2010) Developing a tool for measuring the decision-making competence of older adults. Psychol Aging 25(2):271–288. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019106
Frederick S (2005) Cognitive reflection and decision making. J Economic Perspectives 19(4):25–42. https://doi.org/10.1257/089533005775196732
Garrett RK, Weeks BE (2017) Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation. PLoS ONE 12(9):e0184733. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184733
Gleichgerrcht E, Young L (2013) Low levels of empathic concern predict utilitarian moral judgment. PLoS ONE 8(4):e60418. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0060418
Gouiran MD (2021) The utilitarian moral judgment: Real Utilitarianism or moral leniency? Master thesis, University of Geneva
Greene JD (2014) Beyond point-and-shoot morality: Why cognitive (neuro)science matters for ethics. Ethics 124(4):695–726. https://doi.org/10.1086/675875
Hopwood CJ, Bleidorn W (2021) Antisocial personality traits transcend species. Personality Disorders: Theory Research and Treatment 12(5):448–455. https://doi.org/10.1037/per0000463
Hursthouse R (2006) Applying virtue ethics to our treatment of the other animals. In: Welchman J (ed) The practice of virtue: Classic and contemporary readings in virtue ethics. Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, pp 136–155
Jaquet F (2021) A debunking argument against speciesism. Synthese 198(2):1011–1027. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02080-5
Kahane G (2012) On the wrong track: Process and content in moral psychology. Mind & Language 27(5):519–545. https://doi.org/10.1111/mila.12001
Kahane G, Everett JA, Earp BD, Farias M, Savulescu J (2015) “Utilitarian” judgments in sacrificial moral dilemmas do not reflect impartial concern for the greater good. Cognition 134:193–209. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2014.10.005
Kahane G, Everett JA, Earp BD, Caviola L, Faber NS, Crockett MJ, Savulescu J (2018) Beyond sacrificial harm: A two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology. Psychol Rev 125(2):131–164. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000093
Kavanagh PS, Signal TD, Taylor N (2013) The Dark Triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes, and dark behaviors. Pers Indiv Differ 55(6):666–670. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.05.019
Loughnan S, Haslam N, Bastian B (2010) The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite 55(1):156–159. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2010.05.043
Mihailov E (2022) Measuring impartial beneficence: a Kantian perspective on the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. Rev Philos Psychol. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00600-2
O’Neill P, Petrinovich L (1998) A preliminary cross-cultural study of moral intuitions. Evol Hum Behav 19(6):349–367. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1090-5138(98)00030-0
Patil I, Silani G (2014) Reduced empathic concern leads to utilitarian moral judgments in trait alexithymia. Front Psychol 5:1–12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00501
Paulhus DL, Neumann CS, Hare RD (2009) Manual for the Hare Self-Report Psychopathy Scale. Multi-HealthSystems, Toronto
Petrinovich L, O’Neill P, Jorgensen M (1993) An empirical study of moral intuitions: Toward an evolutionary ethics. J Personal Soc Psychol 64(3):467–478. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067
Regan T (1983) The case for animal rights. University of California Press, Berkeley
Singer P (1972) Famine, affluence, and morality. Philos Public Affairs 1(3):229–243
Singer P (1975) Animal liberation. Thorsons, London
Tassy S, Oullier O, Mancini J, Wicker B (2013) Discrepancies between judgment and choice of action in moral dilemmas. Front Psychol 4:1–8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00250
Taylor N, Signal TD (2005) Empathy and attitudes to animals. Anthrozoös 18(1):18–27. https://doi.org/10.2752/089279305785594342
This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (under Eccellenza grant “Eudaimonic emotions and the (meta-)philosophy of well-being”) and the Université de Strasbourg. For helpful comments, we would like to thank two anonymous referees for this journal, as well as the editors of this special issue, David Killoren and Emilian Mihailov.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Appendix: Measures of Attitudes Towards Animals
Appendix: Measures of Attitudes Towards Animals
A1. Bègue and Laine (2017)’s two-item measure:
Animals are things, livestock.
I like animals as if they were beings having a personality. [reverse coded]
A2. Caviola et al. (2019)’s Speciesism Scale:
Morally, animals always count for less than humans.
Humans have the right to use animals however they want to.
It is morally acceptable to keep animals in circuses for human entertainment.
It is morally acceptable to trade animals like possessions.
Chimpanzees should have basic legal rights such as a right to life or a prohibition of torture. [reverse coded]
It is morally acceptable to perform medical experiments on animals that we would not perform on any human.
A3. Jaquet (2021)’s Speciesism Scale:
We should always elevate human interests over the interests of animals.
When human interests conflict with animal interests, human interests should always be given priority.
We should strive to alleviate human suffering before alleviating the suffering of animals.
The suffering of animals is just as important as the suffering of humans. [reverse coded]
Having extended basic rights to minorities and women, it is now time to extend them also to animals. [reverse coded]
Just like discriminating against other races or genders, discriminating against other species is wrong. [reverse coded]
Too much fuss is made over the welfare of animals these days when there are many human problems that need to be solved.
Animals should be granted the same rights as humans with comparable mental capacities (such as babies and people with severe mental disabilities). [reverse coded]
I am as much concerned about pain and suffering in animals as I am about pain and suffering in humans. [reverse coded]
About this article
Cite this article
Jaquet, F., Gouiran, M. & Cova, F. Utilitarianism and the Moral Status of Animals: A Psychological Perspective. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-022-10322-8